Are pilots rediscovering how to travel by light airplane?

By long standing tradition, baseball players never talk to a pitcher in the middle of a perfect game—if everything is going well, why jinx it? The same mindset applies to pilots, who are often hesitant to acknowledge good news for fear of chasing it away. I’m going to violate that unwritten rule because I think it’s worth exploring an interesting development: general aviation is doing surprisingly well during the coronavirus pandemic.

If it feels like the traffic pattern is crowded and the flight school next door is busy, you’re not alone. ForeFlight reported piston airplane flying over the July 4 weekend (as tracked by their app) was up 10% on 2019, while turboprops were up 8%. AOPA reports that, after a major decline in March and April, members’ flying hours picked up significantly in June and July. Calls about financing are up too, as some pilots have decided this is the time to buy an airplane or finish a rating. This is hardly a revolution, but some GA airports are busier than airline hubs right now.

I’ve noticed the increase in activity on some of my recent trips, from the Southeast to the Midwest. A few weeks ago, I landed at Custer County Airport in South Dakota, a beautiful but remote landing strip close to Mt. Rushmore that was buzzing with activity. As I took advantage of some cheap self-serve fuel, another pilot wandered over to chat (from a very Covid-appropriate 10 feet). He was flying home to Denver in a Cessna 172 after visiting family in the area. A scenic two-hour flight in the Skyhawk was easier than a six-hour drive and safer than flying on an airline.

Two things are worth noting here. First, a lot of the strength is in light airplanes—as the 172 pilot illustrates, this isn’t just a business jet boom for billionaires escaping the city. And secondly, a lot of the activity is because people are really going places, not just practicing landings. Both of these are encouraging developments, because I believe traveling by light airplane is one of the most rewarding things you can do in life (it is the tagline for Air Facts, after all).

Public vs. Private

Some pilots may be breaking state-mandated health rules and behaving irresponsibly, but what I’ve seen so far is the opposite—pilots are using airplanes precisely because they allow for social distancing. This is part of a larger trend, as people around the world reevaluate how they get around, comparing the tradeoffs between public and private transportation.

Parked Delta jets
Customers are voting with their wallets right now and airlines aren’t winning.

Public transportation is almost universally weak right now. Uber rides have declined by 75% almost overnight, the New York City subway is unusually quiet, and TSA screenings for airline passengers are down 70% from 2019 levels (although they are up noticeably from the bottom in April). While the risk of getting sick from an commercial flight appears to be low, passengers are voting with their wallets right now and airlines aren’t winning.

Private transportation, on the other hand, has seen renewed interest. Car sales in China are up 15% over last year as more commuters decide the hassle of traffic beats the risk of a bus ride during a pandemic. In America, you can’t hardly buy a bike or an RV right now because sales are so strong. Even house prices have risen, contrary to most predictions from late March, as people invest in their quarantine locations instead of concerts and restaurant meals.

General aviation certainly falls into that private category, and has benefited from the rapidly shifting social norms. Flying club members have found new value in their 1/12th ownership in a Cherokee. Airline pilots have taken early retirement or been furloughed, and they’re getting back into general aviation airplanes either for fun or for a new career. Million-milers have started to consider private aviation instead of United. And employees working from home might have just a bit more time to pursue a new activity like learning to fly. This renewed interest in aviation is not universal and it could easily fade away, but so far it seems genuine.

You don’t know what you have until you lose it, and over the last four months many Americans have realized how much they like to travel. Sure, some business trips are a waste of time and the three-hour layover at O’Hare is nobody’s idea of fun, but travel is a defining characteristic of our country. Visiting a customer five states away or taking the kids to the beach are relatively routine experiences in the 21st century, not some exotic idea from a 1930s science fiction magazine. When that easy travel went away this spring, people noticed.

A new type of travel?

In addition to how we’re traveling, where we’re traveling has also changed. With most foreign borders closed and cruise ships parked, national parks and lake houses have become 2020’s preferred destinations. For GA pilots, these are ideal places to fly—no need for 2000-mile airplane range and passports, just a duffel bag and a quick flight. 

I did a version of this in July and was thrilled with the results. I used a piston airplane to take my kids on a quick lake vacation, and with a convenient airport near my destination I could do it in a day, eliminating the need for hotel rooms and other travel logistics. I never would have tried this in a car, and the nearest airline airport was over an hour away. We never got closer than 20 feet to another person, and enjoyed every minute of it.

Rough River
Many state parks still feature convenient airports.

In many ways, we’re rediscovering some great ideas from 50 years ago (heck, even drive-in movie theaters are making a comeback). While we’re mining the past, pilots should take inspiration from this time period, general aviation’s golden age. Flip through an Air Facts or Flying magazine from the 60s and 70s and you’ll see all kinds of interesting ads, some of which seem foreign in today’s world. One promoted a golf course with an airport nearby, using the catchy headline “Drop in for tee.” Oklahoma encouraged pilots to “try a flying vacation” and see their fabulous state lodges, five of which featured lighted airstrips. The message was clear: airplanes are for going places and having fun.

Some of those state park airports may be a little run down these days, but most are still around, making regional trips in the US convenient and fun. They’re part of a network of 5,000+ public airports, one of the crown jewels in America’s transportation infrastructure. 

It’s even possible that technology might allow for more relaxed schedules and easier flight planning for some of these new travelers. Need to stay a day longer because of bad weather? Zoom and cell phones mean many people can work remotely while waiting for the storms to move out.

Piston airplanes might have a role to play in business travel as well. While the Fortune 500 companies are using their business jets, smaller companies might appreciate the privacy and flexibility of a Cirrus or a Cessna 310. If people really leave big cities like New York or San Francisco due to remote working policies (a popular prediction right now that I’m a little skeptical of), workers could find themselves living much closer to a general aviation airport than before. It’s easier to start flight training in Manhattan, Kansas, than Manhattan Island. 

Encouraging new pilots

Of course to support real growth in general aviation flying, we’ll need to train new pilots. That will take a renewed commitment to flight training. In addition to ads about fly-in destinations, those aviation magazines from 50 years ago were also packed with encouragement for new pilots. Full page Cessna ads show the simple 150 and offer $5 intro lessons. Another one offers renters a convenient new option: “Lease-a-Plane offers America a new system in General Aviation. Now you can rent a plane as easily as you rent a car.”

Flying ads
Magazines from the 1960s and 70s were packed with ads for fly-in destinations.

Such ideas are unlikely to come back, but newer ones offer some hope. AOPA’s recent work to grow the number of flying clubs is starting to pay off, with over 1,000 groups in their database. These offer affordable flight training programs with a social infrastructure to keep new pilots engaged, and should be the first point of contact for many new pilots. The growth of the experimental airplane community means pilots can travel in comfort without spending $500,000 for a new airplane.

Another new technology might help pilots at the very earliest stage. Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator game, out this month, represents the first totally new simulator in years and looks simply amazing. It’s attracting a lot of attention, from the general public as well as aviation enthusiasts. I know Microsoft Flight Simulator was a critical step in my path to becoming a pilot, starting in the early 90s; perhaps the latest edition will hook the next generation while they’re spending more time at home.

Perspective

Of course I don’t really want to go back in time, and nostalgia can be crippling as well as inspiring. Leisure suits and high inflation can stay in the 70s. In aviation, I’d much rather have datalink weather and WAAS approaches than Flight Watch and NDBs. Other than fuel prices (which are 30% higher today than they were in 1980, adjusted for inflation), I agree with Richard Collins’s philosophy: “may the good old days never return.”

It’s also easy to overstate general aviation’s recent strength. There is still plenty of bad news in the world, whether it’s significant Covid-19 outbreaks or massive airline layoffs. A small bump in flight activity does not signal a return to the glory days. However, we shouldn’t bury our head in the sand either. In the wake of a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis and economic collapse, the fact that our little corner of the aviation world has survived is worth celebrating. More importantly, it’s worth building on.

31 Comments

  • This is certainly timely. Took a GA adventure ourselves in June/July from ME to CO and back VFR. Before, we likely would have gone commercial but with that being too risky and my ability to take a longer vacation it was the best option. This was by far the farthest we’ve gone and it was a joy to use our airplane as a very adept cross country flier. During earlier months the airplane had also been our escape, allowing us to fly to regional destinations with no other person to person contact for an hour or two when something would have been a four hour drive.

    Thanks for looking on the bright side; GA is magic and we’re so fortunate to be able to participate. I hope, to your point, others will discover this magic elixir as an upside of all the down we’re currently experiencing.

  • I own a Carbon Cub and love to fly it. However… let’s not kid ourselves. Airline flying, even with Covid-19, is still safer than GA flying and drop.

  • Thank you, John. As a certificated airman since 1976 I’ve seen GA annual hours decline precipitously over the last 45 years. The one bright spot is that there has been a slight (~10%) decrease in the fatal accident rate as reported on the FAA’s website. I hope that we can see an upsurge in GA annual hours without a change in the direction of the accident rate. Get-home-itis when using a GA aircraft for trips as mentioned in your article seems to lead to too many VFR into IMC type of accidents. Perhaps Zoom as you mention will mitigate that. To my brother and sister CFI’s I hope that a big part of your curriculum for new pilots is to impart judgement to keep out of weather above the capabilities of the plane and / or pilot. Thank you.

  • Fuel prices are substantially cheaper around here too.

    However, finding a Lyft or taxi at your destination may be impossible. One needs to check the status of FBOs, hotels, eateries, and quarantines at their destination as well.

  • No kidding about GA being busier than ever. While doing my flight review last month I kept getting bumped off the schedule by primary and zero-to-hero students, and now I can’t book a rental anywhere to work on my IR cross-country requirement.

  • You’ve missed one more point. Let’s get rid of this very politicized and useless social distancing – it’s total scam. Just like all those panic dances around COVID-19 because even CDC accepted low death rate of so-called COVID-19 as low as 0.15% comparing to 2019th 0.34% death toll of season flu.
    The main driver of future GA purchases and higher rate of XC flights is rising rate of self-respect. People don’t want to be cattle. They don’t want to pay higher money to airlines for sitting in mask for 6 hours cost to cost, to be humiliated by blue shirted under-IQ’ed TSA idiots for hours. And don’t want to lose 2-3 hours of their lives in long airport lines and being treated as garbage. This is KEY point. And this is why I’m showing my middle finger to TSA and Delta, jetBlue, AA, especially to Spirit (for their passion to grab $25 more for extra inch of my bag) with their masks and wish to sell me soda or TP because they want to squeeze any buck I’ve got in my pocket but don’t want to give me decent service from checking till the moment when I get my suitcase with broken rollers and handles because of some dork playing basketball with my baggage!
    Cordially, I wish them to bankrupt ASAP and to be sold for pennies to the guys who will do money servicing passengers not torturing and humiliating them.
    P.S. Meantime, I’m in process of buying nice Centurion.

    • I predicted this at the beginning of our stay-at-home order. During that time, we were able to escape the mandate with thoroughly enjoyable sunset flights over our city, where we would observe the empty streets and feel sorry for all the people that couldn’t share out freedom of flying. It was truly sanity-saving! Last month we flew our experimental aircraft over 3000 miles and 25 hours on a 3 week adventure from southwest FL to northern MN, VFR all the way, with thunderstorms keeping us on the ground only one day. We received a warm welcome and first class service at every little airport we stopped at. General aviation is truly the ultimate freedom. Now let’s make sure we keep it that way!

      • JoanZ, thanks for beautiful description of what GA can do us if we only dare to jump out of our traditional travel rites! You’ve just confirmed my plans 🙂
        Enjoy your flying!

    • The same science skills that underpin the technology of flight have determined that the Covid virus is transmitted human to human via respiration and that masks are reasonably effective preventative measure. Covid kills indiscriminately, not just the vulnerable. Just read the newspaper. Wearing masks is about protecting others – not you. Perhaps when you inadvertently infect someone you like or love and they die, you will realize it is not about you.
      If you have the same selfish attitude about your flying, then you are threat to all other pilots. In that case, please stay on the ground and let the rest of us responsibly enjoy the freedom of flight.

  • Thanks for the article! A very accurate and appropriate piece right now. I am just the guy you are talking about. 50 years old, working on my PPL on a budget at a little class G in rural Kentucky. I’m booking my flight training time six weeks in advance.

    I’ve saved up for the instruction and for the down payment on an Archer II for my wife and I to travel in, and I can’t get one because the decent ones are gone before they’re on the market. It’ll happen when it’s supposed to.

  • We decided to surprise my brother in law on his 60th birthday. Haven’t been able to do one of our visits this year so decided, what the heck. OK’d the visit with his wife, my sister in law, to make sure they were OK with it and jumped in our RV8. Left Saint Simons Island, GA. and 5 hours later landed in a much cooler Brookfield, WI.
    I’ve been flying since 1968 and am still amazed how in this country we can on the spur of the moment just hop in a little airplane and trek across the country.
    I’m a retired airline pilot and could have flown free up there, but you couldn’t pay me to get on a cattle car and be treated like a criminal and a dummy. Total time enroute was shorter than the cattle car and I carried what I wanted with us.
    General aviation is a blessing for those of us that use it, and use it we do.
    We’ll head back home tomorrow, an extremely pleasant and easy experience courtesy of general aviation.
    How could you do that in 4 days without general aviation. Use it and appreciate it.

  • Covid-19 is real. No doubt. A real virus being used by a new type of tyrannical politician to change your access to freedom. Someone above said something about 170,000 “dead” Americans. How many of those really died from the virus? Or are they counted as Covid deaths because of political agendas and crooked statistics? We’ll never know. But here’s what I do know: the person driving their Prius alone, with the windows rolled up, and a mask on, is the person that will vote your and their own freedom away in a heartbeat.

    As far as airlines are concerned, adios, and not soon enough. From the airport, to the lines, to the security, the dirty planes, the cattle car experience, the peanut bags, the pissed off passengers, you can have it. If I never fly on an airliner again, that’s okay with me. They did it to themselves. Goodbye. Good riddance.

    Yes, as it’s well-pointed out in this article, the local airport traffic pattern is full and it warms my heart. Just like the outdoor dining with 3-hour waits for Joe’s Crab Shack.

    The result of Covid will not be a restriction in freedom, but instead a resurgence in freedom. By foot, bicycle, motorcycle, car or light aircraft, because freedom is an essential desire of every single person on this planet so much so, they will die in pursuit of it.

  • We are seeing the same increase in GA north of the border as well. Things shut down hard here in BC in late March. I was furloughed from my job with a regional carrier but I own a T210M so have not been grounded. In fact now that we have time I am teaching my wife how to save herself if something happens to me on one of our trips to the cabin in north central WA state.
    Sadly with the border closure I have only been down to the US 4 times since March for business related reasons. Once flying right seat in a CJ2+ and the remaining times in my 210. What is interesting from this side of the border is the way Covid has been politicized. Vancouver BC was the epicenter of the infection back in March in Canada and things shut down hard. Over about eight weeks the curve was flattened and for a population of 5.2 million we have had a total of 4000 confirmed cases and 200 deaths. I wont argue that some of the US reported deaths may well have been from other complicating factors due to the increased funding the hospitals get from the government for Covid cases. I am not a snowflake, but seeing my next door neighbours father die of the disease underscores that this isnt something made up. I both fly and ride motorcycles but I am happy to see the flying community had the sense to cancel Oshkosh this year when you look at what happened at Sturgis and the annual bike convention there.
    Anyway, this too shall pass but lets all stay safe and keep the blue side up…

  • GREAT ARTICLE and GREAT COMMENT ABOVE!!! My only concern is too many student pilots trying to rush to get their PPL and getting killed without proper training. We need more qualified CFI’s. There is a real shortage of great instructors IMHO. They don’t get paid enough either. Hopefully, that will change and we can get more instructors. The traffic patterns and skies are getting busier with GA. Be careful and stay alert.

    The other concern I have is if Biden wins the election, our freedom to fly may be in danger. Many of us who fly are successful business owners or have expendable income to buy a plane. However, many companies and businesses are going bankrupt. Our economy will change significantly if socialism wins over capitalism. I’m cautiously optimistic that won’t happen but as we all know from the 24/7 news media, this country has too many problems and the fake news politicizes everything.

    LIVE FREE OR DIE!

  • This is true, and… this also means more pilots are needed to fly small planes (as instructors)
    The FAA is very uptight about illegal charter flights now because so many people don’t want to travel in large airports or packed into large crowded planes. The instruction option is the best. Which means travel in small aircraft like a Cessna 172 under instruction is the best option for non pilots.
    The traveling public may demand some changes to ‘commercial flight rules’ to let commercial pilots fly them around without owning a charter operation.

  • Nothing has changed in the makeup of GA in Alaska. We still use our planes to get from A to B, those of us who are still employed! GA represents the ultimate in versatility and independence.

  • Interestingly enough , I am a 60 year old who recently got my private pilot certificate . In the process met some of the finest folks one could ever meet . And continue to do just that while in the process of working on my Instrument rating . I clearly do not want to be a statistic whereby someone reads about my fatality from an aircraft accident . I can readily appreciate how it could happen . Man , the old saying “now I have a license to learn “. Hence I am diligently working toward getting my ticket thru and around the clouds . Also while in this process I am absolutely astonished at how I am truly becoming to learn to fly and get the most out of my plane . This has given me an apportunity to rest my mind and provide some good old self care mentally and spiritually . I never had ever even had an inkling of desire to fly until a little over a year ago when my son in law ask if I was interested in coming to Amarillo and learning to fly with my grandson . That sparked a fire within me which ultimately led me to buy a plane and learn to fly . I can’t wait to fly to Amarillo with my wife and visit them . We have been a couple of times with my CFIII . I must say that this had also allowed me to Reduce stress while caring for a bunch of folks in medicine during this era of Covid 19 . Would that it was Only a political endeavor . As one person said above regarding the number of deaths . There also have been Many folks that have sufffered for weeks and weeks from being ill and while Ill was alone in fighting this virus . We reached out and while learning how to do all we can and could for these People and very sick sometimes only a word of encouragement or a recommendation to push fluid and use Tylenol . For a physician that is a difficult thing as we should be able to provide a cure or at least a medicine that would contribute to them getting better . In Many cases it is left up to ones on Inmune system . In the last year and during Covid 19 I have been in my aircraft around 180 hours . All have been a blessing to me , my family and my patients . I believe this has slowed me down and allowed me to mentally , physically , and spiritually provide care and be caring . I am looking forward to many years of flying as it truly is a privilege. The other day another pilot and I flew into Houston Intercontinental which would likely have been impossible had the usual traffic been there . It was absolutely amazing . Flying is truly a precise art that exercises the mind such that when one is in the air , A person has only one thing in mind and that is flying the plane . During the last 8-9 months when I have had to complete a death certificate I have intently labored in my decisions and conclusions to use Covid 19 as a primary cause of death . Clearly it has taken many lives of some fine folks . GA has allowed me to get away and come back and be refreshed . A clear mind is a sharp mind .

  • IF, of the 170,000 dead how many were actual caused by The virus, or just had it in addition. No answer, compare total 2020 US death total to 2019 wait and see

  • Yep! I feel like part of this was written about me. I took flying lessons for a couple of months back in my college days, but quickly realized that a serious student would have neither the time nor the money to get very far unless flying was their career choice. I gave it up, but never forgot how much I loved it.
    Nowadays, I have the money, and because of remote work possibilities and the onset of the quarantine, I find I have the time to spend learning again. YouTube Chanels were not a thing when I was in college, but now they offer incredible inspiration and even some education. I’ve gotten excited about Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, as you said, and the possibility of building myself a reasonable flight simulator in my spare room both for entertainment and self-education, especially with navigation and IFR studies. When things have cleared up enough for regular in-person training, I’ll be able to hit the ground running with a previously unimaginable level of preparedness for a new student.
    I also have the realistic goal of buying and using a light airplane for real transportation, as you wrote, rather than my college-age goals for flying, which were unfocused and unrealistic. Assuming my enjoyment and experience in going from zero to solo is similar to what it was my first time around, I might even be able to buy my plane early enough in the process to save some money in my training by completing my PPL using my own plane and simply paying the CFI. I’ll be part of the GA community within the next year, and strangely enough, I think I have to credit this cultural disaster for this next phase of my life.

  • Has anyone else noticed how the used plane market has “firmed up” considerably in the last six months? I was casually looking to buy a plane for flight training with a corporate pilot buddy that is a CFI with over 13k hours. Now in the last month or so, everyone that’s selling a Grumman Cheetah/Tiger or a decent 172 are telling me that they’re getting multiple offers at their asking price. While that may make them look “brilliant” to their spouses, it is pushing me to look at “moving up” to a 182 or the like and splitting it with another friend that also now has the time & $ to learn to fly. Prices for 182s, for example, haven’t seem to have spiked up in the last six months. Does anyone else have any anecdotal evidence on my theory that a lot of the early-retiring airline pilots are spending their cash-outs on GA planes?

  • I feel poorly for those who felt they had to politicize this article with their posts. Instead of politicizing, I recommend that we foster an attitude of (1) following the law (which should never be political), and (2) if our politicians (“leaders”) want something (like “lockdown”, for example) that is unlawful, then we should all strive to find legal ways to achieve similar results. This can yield results that are even better than the original idea would have, because we Americans innovate solutions to match the need. That’s the beauty of our United States of America, and its emphasis on freedom that no GA pilot should fail to notice.

    We have had occasion here to use my Cessna 180 to achieve travel needs when my daughter was reluctant to take the airlines to come and visit. She found her way by rental car to Colorado, and I flew her home to Southern California at the conclusion of her visit. It was a privilege and delight to have the necessary capability and flexibility to make it work.

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